a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Shloshim

Posted on: March 17, 2014

On Thursday, March 6th my only sibling, my younger sister passed away. She was 31 years old. She leaves behind her three little boys, our parents and me, her big sister.

We had a memorial service for her on the Sunday directly following her death, which was inline with Jewish tradition of burial in 3 days, though it was her request to be cremated. I spent the next week with my family and have just returned to NYC where things are…difficult to say the least.

Friends have offered to sit Shivah with/for me here in NYC and I honestly don’t think I can do that, so instead I’m observing aspects of Shloshim. I will also be pausing in blogging for the rest of the Shloshim period.

I ask that you keep my family in your prayers.

 

Post-Racial My Ass

Posted on: February 25, 2014

This morning I browsed the New York Times on my phone while waiting for my rather late train, “Colorblind Notion Aside, Colleges Grapple with Racial Tensions”.  I read the title and was immediately angry and frustrated, I thought the term “Colorblind” went out of vogue 10 years ago.

In the news media and in popular culture, the notion persists that millennials — born after the overt racial debates and divisions that shaped their parents’ lives — are growing up in a colorblind society in which interracial friendships and marriages are commonplace and racism is largely a relic.

But interviews with dozens of students, professors and administrators at the University of Michigan and elsewhere indicate that the reality is far more complicated, and that racial tensions are playing out in new ways among young adults.

Some experts say the concept of being “postracial” can mean replicating some of the divisions and insensitivity of the past, perhaps more from ignorance than from animus. Others find offensive the idea of a society that strips away deeply personal beliefs surrounding self-identification.

When you say that you’re “color blind” what you’re really saying is that you have the ability, because of your privilege, to erase someone else’s race. News flash, you can see my black skin. You can see that brown skin of the group of guys walking down the street (which is why you walked on the other side). You notice when the person doing your nails is a different race than you. You hear people speaking in languages other than your “norm”. You know when you’re the only X-person in a group of X-people and if you’re a person of color in a Jewish space, you notice that too (and so does everyone else). The same goes for the idea of our society being “post-racial” until we live in a a society where being white is no longer the norm, we’re never going to be “post-racial“. To imply that racial tensions are playing out in “new ways” is, in my experience, completely inaccurate. Sure, I never had to sit at the back of the bus, but it doesn’t mean that racism in our society, in the year 2014, has somehow disappeared.

It’s been my experience that children are keenly aware of race and color, I’ll give you an example. A few years back I spoke at a diversity retreat at Be’chol Lashon. I held a black child, adopted from Ethiopia by two white Jewish parents, in my arms. We had an immediate and special bond and after lunch one day she took my hand into hers and examined it. She held it up with both of her little girl hands, flipped it over and examined my palms and the brown lines in them. She flipped it over again, examining my skin, stroking it in a curious, soft way before bringing her big brown eyes to mine. “Your skin is like mine,” she said to me and my heart was pulled in a million directions. I wondered if she’d be able to have open conversations about race and ethnicity with her parents. I wondered if her extended family acknowledge or ignored her skin color. I wondered how she would feel and identify as an child, a teenager, as an adult. I wondered if the Jewish community she was in would accept and nurture her or if she would feel alienated by her Jewish community because of the color of her skin.

I’ll give you another example. I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating. When I was converting to Judaism I arrived to my conversion class early and sat on a big, leather Chesterfield sofa outside of the room we had class. Inside, the room was occupied by students who appeared to be no older than 13 years old. I read a book and sat, but one student noticed me. I noticed him noticing me because his voice became louder than the murmurs of the others. “Hey! Someone’s babysitter is outside.” I felt myself get angry when he said this, and felt like a kid again as 12 pairs of eyes turned to look at me and my heart was also pulled in a million directions. What was this kid’s perception of race? What’s his perception of people of color and how does he perceive his Jewish community. Could I ever be accepted into the Jewish community if a Jewish child only sees me as the help?

People often send me emails or leave comments on posts I write accusing me of being racist, or too sensitive or creating an exaggeration of the issues of race and racism in the Jewish community, but I ask, given those two experiences, can we honestly say that the Jewish community is immune to racial tensions or racism?

The answer to that question is no.

No one is immune- no community, no individual, no religion-we all have issues with race and racism because as a society we have placed so much value into what it is to be white (and for society at large we could argue male and Anglo-Saxon) which therefore invalidates and belittles the value of other races and ethnicities. As much as I’d like to say that the NYT article was shocking, it wasn’t. This is the world that we live in and we really have a few choices: We can live our lives appreciating, learning from, caring about and acknowledging diversity for what it is (and diversity is awesome) or we can live our lives in our own individual worlds, segregating and separating ourselves from people who are different from us. We can teach our children about inclusion and live our lives surrounded by a variety of races, religions and ethnicities or we can teach our children by example, only exposing them to people who share their race, religion and ethnic background.

As Jews, we have an obligation to take a look at our communities and make internal assessments, are we living our mission statements or are they empty words on our websites. As individuals we have the responsibility to live our truths while allowing others to live their individual truths. And as a society we have to find a way to hold on another up rather than using them to step on. That last bit seems a bit far-fetched, but my thought is that mellinnals aren’t post-racial because they see interracial marriages and have interracial friendships, but because they are more willing (or hopefully so) to speak out on bullshit and hopefully the desire to make the changes necessary in our society. Not to end on a Mr. Rogers note, but it’s all of our jobs.

 

arizona-welcome-sign-thumb-250xauto-35321…or you’re black or brown or another non-white variant. Please don’t come if you’re a white person who is married to someone who isn’t white. Or if you wear something on your head for religious purposes, or G-d forbid, you wear something on your face for religious purposes. Please don’t speak a language other than English and I would prefer that you only read the King James version of the Bible. Best not come here if you’re Catholic or Greek Orthodox, we like our Christianity Protestant around these parts.

Have you heard? Arizona has passed the “Right To Discriminate” Bill, SB 1062, a GOP-led bill that would create a special “right” to discriminate against LGBT people on the basis of religion and while it’s aim is at LGBTQ individuals and families (or people who appear to be LGBTQ) it does a lot more damage than meets the eye.  While it says that the discrimination is based on an individual’s religious freedom, that individual freedom infringes on the freedom of any individual that doesn’t meet the first individual’s idea of what is and is not appropriate for their religion.

That was one long run-on sentence.

The Bilerico Project sums it up better, “…During today’s nearly two-hour-long debate, Yarbrough took a different tack, claiming that the basic rights of LGBT people victimize anti-LGBT Christians.”

So my very existence victimizes hate-filled Christians? How is hate a Christian value?

The Bilerico Project interview continues, ” Arizona Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar condemned the legislation in a statement released shortly after the vote. It’s after the jump.

“SB 1062 permits discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. With the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation. This bill may also open the door to discriminate based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.”

I suppose this means that I can check another state off of the list of places I won’t be visiting. It’s also quite shocking how certain parts of our country seem to be moving backwards rather than forwards. 60 years ago it was okay to discriminate against black people and women and today, in some states, it would appear that the trend is back en vogue.

 

 

An update from today’s NY Times.  Arizona Governor Being Pressed to Veto Bill.

Ohhh, Project!

Posted on: February 19, 2014

So it’s no surprise that M and I are engaged and we’re 34 which means that we’re also trying to have a baby! I’ve been blogging about it for a year under a pen name. I’m not ready to reveal that just yet, but what I am doing is working on a project called A Jewish Girl’s Guide to Life. I hope for it to be a collaborative blog with guest posts and media focused on life’s transitions through the lens of POC, Jews and the LGBTQ community. I’m looking for guest bloggers interested in sharing their gay Jewish weddings and family making, but I’ve also reached out to Christians and atheists. What I’m trying to do is create a space for sharing as well as a way to continue sharing my experiences of a black, gay, Jewish woman.

Check it out and if you’d like to write, please send an email to ajewishgirlsguide@gmail.com

 

We’ve got a Problem Here

Posted on: February 18, 2014

A few minutes ago a friend shared a disturbing video on Facebook. I stopped watching MTV around Real World Hawaii, so I have no idea who Charlamagne is. This does not make me an out of touch black person.

What is out of touch, is the fact that black folks in Time Square could easily identify a picture of Tyler Perry, and yet couldn’t identify Rosa Parks, Malcom X or Condoleezza Rice (Michelle Obama, really?)

On one hand I could say that squeezing the whole of black history into a month makes for poor knowledge of … wait, that’s bullshit. Who the hell doesn’t know who Malcom X is!? I call bullshit.

Yes, it’s true that most history lessons take on a sort of crash-course mentality in February. Things that don’t necessarily go together, like the Atlantic Slave trade and Rosa Parks, are taught in back-to-back lessons, hundreds of years of history is squeezed into an hour-long class and I’m sure most kids, black and white, tend to doze off. I was that kid. Black History month was torture as one of the handfuls of black kids in my grade school and high school class. I didn’t pay attention either, but I know who Rosa Parks is.

When I got to college and could chose what I wanted to learn I chose to learn about black literature and as a result some of my favorite authors are black. It’s a sad state of affairs that black folks in NYC can identify a man who, in my opinion has done nothing good for black people in the United States except for perpetuate stereotypes of abusive, absent black men and weak women, and cannot identify a woman who’s act of defiance helped to catalyze the Civil Rights movement. Kids today can name rappers and athletes, they can recite the lyrics to songs but I wonder if they can recite Dr. King’s most famous speech. Okay, I can’t do that, but you know what I mean.

When I was a kid I asked my parents questions, specifically my mom who grew up in the segregated south. Her stories touched me in a profound way. She made difficult experiences and terrible history easier to understand. And while I’ll never fully understand what she saw or experienced, she made it make sense for my child’s mind. We read books at home about Civil Rights leaders and while being the only black kid in class came with an entirely different host of problems, I always felt a sense of pride about who I was and where I came from.

Now, it’s quite possible that this whole stunt is just that, a stunt. I’m sure, or at least I hope, that people knew the answers to these very basic questions. I’m sure those people outnumbered these folks and I’m sure those clips weren’t what the producers were looking for. If that’s the case, I’m afraid we have a bigger problem. Why is this type of humiliation amusing? Who thinks that this display of ignorance is entertaining?

What are your thoughts on this balagan?

 

A Cross-Post from Jewschool

Posted on: February 18, 2014

I wrote a guest post for Jewschool about JMN‘s Parlor Meeting.

When there were rumbles about yet another Weather Event in New York on February 6th, I got considerably more anxious than I normally would have, given that I work from home (or wherever) and don’t own a car I have to dig out. If the first ever Jewish Multi-Racial Network Parlor Meeting had been cancelled,  it would have been a huge loss to everyone who attended. There’s something that happens in a room when people are being nudged around in their comfort zones, when they’re pushing themselves to think bigger and wider. It’s like an electricity. Not like. It is.

(Chanel Dubofsky)

Last Wednesday,  a few brave Jews made a trek to the middle of Brooklyn. I know what you’re thinking, what’s so brave about Jews in Brooklyn? They were brave not only to venture outside during an ice storm, but also because they knew they would be spending the evening talking about privilege and race in the Jewish community at The Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN) Parlor Meeting.

The conversation, moderated by JMN President, Chava Shervington and me, a JMN Board member, asked the tough question: “Am I Racist?” Attended by both white Jews and Jews of Color, in the two-hour conversation, tough topics were brought to the table. Everything from white privilege to reactions to seeing people of color in Jewish spaces was discussed and the participants asked and answered thoughtful questions while sharing individual experiences of prejudice. JMN’s Privilege Checklist was distributed and completed by participants in one exercise. Participants were also asked a series of hard questions. With their eyes closed, they were asked to raise their hands while they responded to the following statements: I have seen a person of color in my Jewish community and wondered why they were there. I have heard prejudiced things said about people of color in my Jewish community. I have said prejudiced things. I want to work for the inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color in the American Jewish community. As the participants answered the last question, I asked them to open their eyes and look around the room-everyone’s hand was raised.

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When Hebrew Israelites Invade!

Posted on: February 17, 2014

I’ve written about Hebrew Israelites before and while I generally think that writing about Messianic Jews and Hebrew Israelites  gives these communities unnecessary press, I do have to share something that happened to me at Friday night service.

I’ve mentioned before that my beloved shul’s music director has left. It’s thrown me into another and more unexpected shul shopping frenzy, but thankfully I’ve found an independent minyan in Brooklyn that meets once a month and it’s fabulous. I’m still searching for an alternative for the other three weeks, but for now, the services at Shir HaMaalot are doing an amazing job of fueling my spiritual soul.

Last Friday was my second experience at Shir HaMaalot and like the first time there were a couple JOCs present. I remembered a topic that came up at the JMN Parlor Meeting; what happens when you notice a JOC in your shul. The other JOCs in the room talked about that slightly awkward feeling of noticing another JOC-you want to go say hi, but realize that doing so could be weird for you and the other person. So to avoid that awkward interaction, especially at a Shabbat service, I tend to greet people the exact same way: “Shabbat Shalom!” If they respond with a Shabbat Shalom and continue wishing others the same greeting I move on. If we’re waiting for kiddush to start or in the case of Shir HaMaalot, waiting for dinner to start, I’ll introduce myself in a natural way.

Which is what happened on Friday.

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The Problem Isn’t Jen Caron…

Posted on: January 30, 2014

…or whatever her name is.

As an FYI I don’t think we should grab our pitch forks and burn her at the stake. And I promise not to make any jabs.

A few days ago the internets exploded when a self-described “skinny white girl” posted her inner most feelings about a “heavy black woman” at yoga. Since then, there have been brilliant responses, all of them are hilarious. You can read them here, here, here and here.

Of course, there have been serious responses as well, many of them addressing the issues of race, racism and privilege.

Yes, Jen has a lot of soul searching to do. I would suggest she find her way to an ashram to find her inner peace, but I’m not sure that she’d be able to focus on herself with all of the other bodies around her. (Okay, maybe that was a jab.)

I’m also not going to bash Jen, because I sort of feel sorry for her. I’m not even going to complain about xoJane (because I already said my piece to the editor who gave the piece the green light.) Though I have to say I was shocked that a black woman read that piece of trash and put it on the site.

The problem isn’t xoJane or Jen or the editor, per se. The problem is unchecked privilege, micro-aggression and the horrible, yet increasingly common, appropriation of people of color.

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2 trainI was completely unable to focus on my game of Tetris, instead felt hyper-aware of all of the brown people on the train.

The 2 Train is an interesting train. In fact, according to Buzzfeed, it’s the 8th  best train in all of NYC. Most people get on and off between 14th street and 72nd street, where I’m sure most Brooklynites or New Yorkers assume it ends. Not me, I live off the Beverly Road stop in Flatbush, Brooklyn with lots of black folks.

This afternoon I was pumped to find a seat when I boarded the train at Wall Street and as I settled into my game of Tetris (damnit I stopped on level 12, so much stress) I noticed a cute, skinny white girl also board at Wall. I couldn’t help but notice her. She had brown curly hair coming out of a knit beanie, a Brooklyn Industries Coat, ironic tote bag, skinny jeans and Doc Marten boots. She kept pushing her Ray-ban eyeglasses up with the her index finger, dark nail polish, chipped.

As the 2 train slugged into Brooklyn and people kept getting on and off I couldn’t help being aware of her presence, especially when she down right next to me.  Her iPod had died, I noticed when I glanced at her,  she was fake listening to music. She didn’t appear to have any reading material and I noticed her leg shake nervously. As we neared Atlantic Ave/Barclays Center I was sure she would get off. But she didn’t.

More brown people got on and more white people got off as we passed Bergen Street and then, at the final white folks get off stop-Eastern Parkway Brooklyn Museum. It was just her. The only white person on the train. When she didn’t get off I couldn’t help but think about her. I was completely unable to focus on my game of Tetris, instead felt hyper-aware of all of the brown people on the train. Her eyes darted around nervously, but remained nonchalant and as the last holdout, a racially ambiguous hipster guy with Clark mountain boots and a Carhart jacket, got off at President I watched her face go from frustration, to shock to compete and utter fucking fear.

It was at President that a group of young black men got on the train and I watched her casually grip her tote closer to her body. Instead of looking around the train nervously she looked straight ahead. At Sterling another group of brown people got on, some of them spoke Spanish. She picked her nails. At Church Avenue a man wearing a huge knit scarf to contain his crown of Locs got on, smelling of pot and patchouli. He lumbered to where we sat and leaned on the pole. She shifted slightly and clutched her tote closer to her body.

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Back for Two Important Cross-Posts

Posted on: January 28, 2014

Every once in a while I’ll check to see what’s happening on the blog.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the continued support and readership-even in my sabbatical :)

I will say that I was shocked that my “Schvartze” piece from a few years ago was one of the most searched and read pieces. But given the activity of the blogosphere in the past few days, I can’t say that I’m surprised.

Two blogs, one from Pop Chassid, Elad Nehorai, and the second by blogging newcomer, Zein Shver have been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. I applaud these two brown men for speaking their truths. I hope they both continue to share what it is to be brown and Jewish and that the Jewish world not only listens, but opens its collective heart and ears to our many, varied and valid stories.

I Hate This Word and So I Let A Man Write it on My Face

Image by Ganesh Photography

Image by Ganesh Photography

I want to write Schvartze on your face and then take a picture.

I was stunned and not stunned. This is what I was here for. It had to come down to this. I was sitting with photographer Steve Rosenfield, creator of the What I be Project. Steve offers people the opportunity to express their insecurities, by writing them on their faces. After a discussion about myself, Steve and I decided we would write Shvartze (yiddish/german for black) on my face.

Shvartze isn’t Yiddish for Black. Shvartze is Yiddish for Nigger.

Being a Jew with a black father, living in Crown Heights is a strange experience. There is always a strong undercurrent of racism. Jews and Blacks (the shvartzes to use the unfortunate local parlance) have always had tension between them.

Since moving to Crown Heights, I’ve heard the word flow like blessings. It drips out of the mouths of young and old alike. It can be stunning sometimes. You’ll be moving along just fine and then the “S-bomb” will come along and just ruin your day, or at the very least your hour and minute. It’s never nice when it’s said. No one ever says “I had a man do my taxes. He’s shvartze.” Nor do they say “my son is playing with the boys next door, they’re shvartze.” It’s always “a shvartze stole my bike;” or “if the shvartzes welfare why shouldn’t we.” So, this common excuse that shvartze merely means black doesn’t play well with me.

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“Why My Skin Color Means I’ll Never Feel Like I Belong”

“Terrorist.”

Image from Pop Chassid

Image from Pop Chassid

That was a word I heard a lot in high school. I’m a sephardi Jew (three-quarters of me is, genetically speaking) and I was living in a very white (but Jewish) area near Chicago. And so the people made jokes, they made jokes in the way guys make jokes in high school, finding out what’s different about you and exploiting it.  Not exactly in a mean way, but in the way that people just did in high school, whether you were friends or enemies.

“Terrorist!” “Where were you last night, dude?  Blowing stuff up?”

Stuff like that. You kind of learn to just accept these things in high school.  You learn that, “Hey, if I laugh along with them, or don’t get angry, I won’t ostracize myself.  I won’t turn it into something they know they can get into my head with.” And so I laughed it off. But the truth was that it bothered me.  But maybe not for the reason you’d expect. It bothered me because I felt white.  Or, at least, I didn’t feel different than everyone else.

My whole life I had grown up in white areas.  My parents grew up in an Ashkenazi (primarily white) area of Israel.  Culturally, I think my parents and I didn’t feel so different from the people around us. I remember my mother even explaining to me when I was young that I was white.  Because it’s kind of true.  There’s no option on the Census for “Middle-Eastern” in the race area.  No scholarships or affirmative action.  Racially, I am technically white; caucasian. But kids, and people in general, don’t care about that.  They care about what they see. And I remember that time in first grade when we had a discussion about race and I mentioned to the class that I was white, as if it was nothing, as if it was a fact… and the whole class started telling me that I wasn’t, that there was no way that I was white.

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